Product Organizational Structure
In earlier articles I have discussed the key roles in the product organization – product managers, product designers, engineers and QA, user researchers, data analysts, product marketing and delivery managers – and I’ve also discussed the ratios between the roles, but many organizations also struggle with the organizational structure that contains these people.
While I have seen – and continue to see – a few different permutations out there, I do think that a standard organizational structure for product organizations has emerged, and that there are good reasons for this structure.
I will admit that I do not feel nearly as strongly about the organizational structure as I do about the roles and responsibilities. I believe that if you have the right role definitions, and reasonable and well-intentioned management, you can usually make most organizational structures work, and I have no real problem with designing an organization around the strengths of the individual leaders rather than following a template from successful product organizations.
That said, we all know that organizational structure really does impact behavior, so all things considered equal, I argue that evolving towards the structure I describe below will improve the effectiveness of your overall product organization, sometimes in very profound ways.
Please note that I am only talking here about the product organization and not the other major areas of your company including sales, customer service, finance, business development and true IT (as distinct from product development).
I argue that every CEO/COO or division GM needs three clear and distinct voices on her staff: Marketing, Product Management and Design, and Engineering.
As such, the most important aspect to the organizational design is that these three be top level, and one should not be buried within another.
So, reporting to the CEO/COO of a small or medium sized company, or each business unit GM of a large company:
– Marketing contains functions including corporate marketing, marketing communications, field marketing, and product marketing.
– Product Management and Design contains product management, product design (interaction design/information architecture, visual design, prototyping, user research), and if applicable, subject matter experts.
– Engineering contains architecture, engineering, QA, release management, devops, and delivery management.
– Notice that IT (the technical team that supports employees) is intentionally distinct from the engineering organization. This is the topic of a future article, but for now let me say that the demands on these two groups are inherently different, and that it’s important to treat each appropriately. In terms of titles, normally the CIO runs the IT organization, and the CTO/VP Engineering runs the product development organization.
– It is a problem if Product Design is buried either in marketing or engineering. It is critical that the product design team, especially the interaction designers, be very closely tied to the product managers. Keeping product managers as close as possible to the design team is the reason for the trend towards combining product management and design into one organization (although each should have its own leader).
– Marketing typically also has some number of graphic designers that support marketing programs and advertising. A strong user experience requires constant attention not just to the interaction design, but also to the visual design of the application, and this group should be managed by someone who understands what it means to support a product team. If there is a single Creative Director who understands both visual design for product, and visual design for marketing, the company is in great shape because one visual design group can serve both needs, and the overall expression of the brand will be very consistent. But if the head of the visual design team is under marketing, and isn’t understanding the needs of the product, you will need to correct this situation as soon as possible.
– Sometimes product marketing is part of the product management organization. This is not a big problem, and there are some advantages to that, but I prefer when it’s part of marketing as this helps to reinforce role definition and make sure there’s no confusion between product management and product marketing. To be clear though, even if product management and product marketing are part of the same organization, the roles are different.
– Startups are a bit of a special case in that they are typically small enough that the organizational structure is minor compared to the personalities and individual skill sets involved. But remember that if things do go well, you’ll grow fast, and you’ll want to put an effective organization in place sooner rather than later.
If your organization is not structured in this fashion, then if things are working great I would not suggest changing a thing. But if your team is struggling, and if it feels more painful than it should to get good products out the door, then consider evolving your organization more towards the model described here and see if that doesn’t improve the situation.
Special thanks to both Chuck Geiger and Kyrie Robinson for their contributions to this article.